Ken Salazar wants windmills in the ocean, but first he'll have to save the Interior Department

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The second test is in Salazar's back yard: western Colorado's Roan Plateau ("Raiding the Roan," January 1, 2004). One of the most biologically diverse areas in the state and a trove of natural gas supplies, the plateau is largely controlled by the BLM, which auctioned gas leases last August after years of protest. The leases are now being challenged in court by environmental groups. Senator Salazar opposed the BLM's plan, favoring a state proposal that would allow a more gradual leasing process; Secretary Salazar has since indicated that he'll review the arrangement and issue a decision within a few weeks.

Natural-gas drilling has dropped off dramatically since the frenzy of last summer, a result of sinking prices and rising reserves. Still, reneging on the Roan leases would be viewed quite differently by the gas industry than halting the Utah sale. "We run the risk of starting to look like Venezuela or Russia when we change the rules of the game midstream," Smith warns. "The Secretary has every right to review decisions. But you've got to be careful to not discourage investment in clean energy across the West. If companies that have valid leases aren't allowed to develop them, that would really send the wrong message."

Yet the Roan auction is also a glaring example of the Interior Department's willingness to bypass the communities most affected by land-use decisions. The BLM received more than 70,000 comments opposing widespread leasing on the plateau — comments not only from environmentalists, but from mayors and county leaders, tourism groups, hunters and other locals. The final plan incorporated almost none of that input.

"The last few years, you wouldn't think the BLM thought that the oil and gas resources belonged to the American public," says former BLM state director Morgan. "It was for industry to take whatever they wanted. If nothing else, I would like to see communities getting more involved in those decisions."

In 1993, Jim Baca became director of the BLM under the Clinton administration. A former journalist and New Mexico land commissioner, Baca was determined to overhaul the agency's good-old-boy dealings with ranchers, mining interests and energy producers.

Baca lasted less than a year. The strong support he'd initially received from Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt quickly evaporated, as Babbitt faced an increasingly hostile Congress and pressure from governors across the West. Many BLM state directors, Baca discovered, had back-door access to lawmakers from those states and were eager to advance their own agendas.

"Out attempt was to make these BLM lands much more than the playground for oil and gas and livestock and mining," he says. "We were going to start with grazing reform. But then everything fell flat because Babbitt didn't have the strength to go fight the Senate — and the relationships between state directors and the senators from their states."

Baca went on to become mayor of Albuquerque and is now New Mexico's natural-resources trustee, a state position appointed by the governor. He has some advice for Salazar: "After eight years, the state directors at BLM are probably ready to go. They should be carefully looked at. That's part of the culture that really has to change."

Salazar has several advantages Babbitt didn't have. He has strong allies in the Senate, a brother in the House of Representatives and considerable rapport, for the moment, with his president, who arrived in Washington as an unlikely, rising-star freshman senator the same year Salazar did. But his early moves have already ruffled some Republican grouse; Utah senator Robert Bennett recently stalled confirmation of DOI Deputy Secretary David Hayes over the canceled lease sale. In an ideal world, it may be possible to base public-land policy solely on science, but Interior is still a highly politicized entity, inside and out.

True reform at Interior will require coming to terms with deep-rooted political realities that promote abuse of public lands and shortchange the public — the politics of energy leases, for example. Several studies have raised questions about possible collusion in the bidding process, gross undervaluation of the acreage involved, and considerable speculation on the part of bidders who may not have any real incentive to develop the lease. "There's an immense amount of land that's been leased but never developed, and yet they lease more and more," says Baca.

A few years ago, Pete Morton and several other analysts prepared a lengthy report for the Wilderness Society on oil and gas drilling in the Rockies. They concluded that the DOI has wildly exaggerated the estimated energy reserves that could be extracted from public lands, by focusing on oil and gas that's "technically recoverable" rather than those reserves that are economically feasible to develop. At the same time, the government has never taken into account the true "non-market costs of extraction," including the costs of pollution, damage to the land, and loss of wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities. Even when just the usual market constraints are taken into consideration, the amount of economically attainable natural gas in the region is less than 20 percent of the "technically recoverable" estimates. The group calculated that the amount of such gas in sensitive, roadless areas in six Rocky Mountain states is barely enough gas to meet domestic consumption needs for 2.5 months.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast